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Answering Inappropriate or Illegal Questions

Inappropriate Questions

On the other end of the spectrum are questions that are inappropriate or just plain awkward. Perhaps the interviewer is dying to ask a question he or she understands may be illegal, but asks it anyway in a more oblique fashion. One African-American applicant interviewed with a partner who “casually” asked her about her dress style. The interviewee got suspicious and asked the partner to elaborate. As it turned out, the firm had previously hired a female African-American associate whose dress style, they felt, was “inappropriate.” The interviewer awkwardly explained that the firm wanted to avoid this “problem” with future African-American job applicants.

Most questions fall into the gray area between illegality and inappropriateness. For example, during an interview at a well-known New York firm, an older, seasoned partner asked a female candidate whether she planned to have a family in the near future. He explained that it was a major financial burden for the firm to have to retain women attorneys who later got married, had babies, and quit their jobs. The partner appeared genuinely disheartened that a particular female associate he had taken under his wing, and who had stellar partnership prospects, had left the firm to raise her young children. He went on and on about all the money, time, and resources spent on training this young associate. The candidate, it turned out, was gay. She assured the partner she had no imminent plans to marry or have children. After an awkward silence, the partner told her that she “might consider” another prominent firm, which, he said, was known for hiring gay attorneys.

So how do you deal with these very awkward and potentially difficult situations? “To hell with you and your racist, sexist, bigoted firm,” you may (justifiably) want to say in response to any of the previous examples. As an educated person expecting civility and fairness from your future employer and colleagues, you may well be entitled to such righteous indignation. But as a lawyer interviewing for a job in a competitive market, you don't always have this luxury. You must first think of the consequences of your reaction and consider your options. Regardless of whether a question is illegal or just inappropriate, you generally have the following options to choose from.

Option 1: Ask the interviewer to elaborate

It is possible that your interviewer has a legitimate reason to ask a seemingly inappropriate question. Perhaps he or she asked you about your age because he or she realized that you share a hometown and wants to find out if you went to the same high school. Asked in these circumstances, a question about your age does not justify overreacting and jeopardizing your chances. If you are unsure about a question, you can ask the interviewer to elaborate, which will give him or her a chance to explain or retract the question, and shift the interview to a more positive mood. Just do this in a neutral, non-threatening tone.

Option 2: Say nothing and take one on the chin

As much as it pains us to say this, the safest option in terms of optimizing your chances for an offer is to allow the question. This is especially true if you really need the job and want to maximize your chances of getting it. If you can satisfy the interviewer's sick curiosity and tell him or her what he or she wants to hear, your chances of an offer will significantly improve. If you think an honest answer will help you, go ahead and volunteer the information. Otherwise, a rebuttal, a joke, or some other form of diversion is best. Try to anticipate the insensitive questions your background could inspire. When you get an offer, of course, you can judge for yourself whether you actually want to work there.

During her on-campus interview, Kayla met with a senior partner and an associate from a prominent firm. Both men were alums from Kayla's law school, and the conversation touched upon such topics as favorite classes and professors. Kayla, who was applying to the firm's bankruptcy department, asked them if they knew Professor Cox, who had been teaching bankruptcy at this school for the last 20 years. The partner then asked Kayla why she was interested in practicing bankruptcy law. She gave a thoughtful and detailed answer, and concluded by saying, “I just really like bankruptcy law.” “So, what you are saying is that you really like Cox,” stated the partner, winking at his colleague. Both men laughed hysterically. Although Kayla could have walked out, she chose to resort to humor instead. “Of course,” she enthusiastically replied, as if oblivious to the inappropriate implication, “doesn't everyone?”

How you react to inappropriate questions is not just important for the sake of getting an offer; your reaction can also have a lasting effect on your legal career. As a lawyer, your reputation is your most precious asset. Never jeopardize it by giving a hasty response to a bad question.

Option 3: Answer the question and go on the offensive

This is a somewhat risky option. But it may work for those who want to acknowledge the elephant in the room and still to have a shot at getting an offer. When asked if being a foreigner means you have poor writing skills, consider answering, “I am confident that I will be a highly effective writer, as indicated by my top grade in legal writing class, my membership on the law review, and my high class ranking. In addition, I do not think my national origin or ethnic background should preclude me from working as a lawyer.” When asked if being a single mother will interfere with your work, consider the following response: “As a single mother, I always make my employer's needs a priority, because my employer allows me to support my child and pay for her private school, which is important for her future. It's always been that way, and she understands it.”

Answers such as these do two things. First, they help you put your best foot forward in terms of your qualifications. Second, terms such as “single mother,” “national origin,” “ethnic background,” and “preclude” will hopefully set off an alarm in your interviewer's head and remind him or her to be politically correct. This is one way to answer an improper question and put pressure on your interviewer to give you an offer.

Option 4: Refuse to answer

Of course, you can simply state, “I will not answer that question,” or “I believe this question is inappropriate” (or illegal), and leave. This is an easy way out of a difficult situation, but it is hardly a practical one. Such a reaction will likely ruin any chances you had with this employer, especially if you misunderstood the question.

Option 5: Report the conduct

Resorting to this option will likely mean losing any chance you had of getting an offer. Unfortunately, this is the sad reality of legal employment market. Once you tell your career services, they may feel obligated to confront the employer. Firm management will then contact the interviewer, who will, without a doubt, recall your specific interview. They will then find a way not to hire you. A rebuke by a law school administration can have a powerful impact on a firm's future interviewing and hiring practices, but you will not enjoy the benefits of this reform because you will likely never have a future at that firm. There is a slim chance that they will still give you an offer, but it is unlikely. The damage to their reputation will have already been done by your reporting, and they will have little to gain from hiring you.

If you decide to contact the media, insist on anonymity. In the past few years, law blogs and mainstream media have featured numerous stories about law students who complained to career services, wrote letters to newspapers, sent school-wide notices, or e-mailed the firm's management about what they felt was inappropriate behavior during interviews. But even when a firm took proactive steps and apologized for the incident, the student in question received plenty of bad publicity, as well. In many cases, the student's name was circulated on the Web, searchable and identifiable by all potential employers.

A Dallas partner had the misfortune of making a racial comment during his on-campus interview with an African-American student. Specifically, while reciting verbatim testimony from a civil rights case he worked on, the partner dropped the N-word. It did not matter that the partner himself was an African-American, or that the comment was not meant as derogatory. Deeply offended, the student reported the incident to career services. The partner received a slap on the wrist from the firm's management. The firm publicly apologized for the incident. The law school barred the firm from interviewing on campus the next year. The story made national news. Luckily, the student was smart enough to speak out anonymously, which shielded his identity from the mainstream media.

Option 6: File a lawsuit

Filing a lawsuit may also be an option. Consult a lawyer if you feel the situation warrants this, but be very careful: Employers are reluctant to hire lawyers with a litigious history. Remember the widely publicized employment discrimination lawsuits filed by lawyers? Where are these lawyers now? We do not know, either. So think twice before resorting to litigation.

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Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesLaw Job InterviewsAnswering Inappropriate or Illegal Questions - Illegal And Discriminatory Questions, Inappropriate Questions, Our Advice